For 40 years people have been skating at the Undercroft at the Southbank. Long before shops, cafes or restaurants appeared in the area. Apart from having become one of the most famed skating spots in the world, it has also brought life to the Southbank as a whole. Now the Southbank Centre threatens to close it down and replace it with commercial units, cafes, restaurants, shops. To "fund new spaces for children, young people, education and art," as they write.
They seem to have underestimated the opposition these plans would cause, and have now turned to various media to defend their plans. Their strategy has been clear: it is by cornering skating at the Southbank and centering the activities of their institution that they aim to push through their project.
In their depiction the Undercroft is essentially just a space for a bunch of skateboarders who "must see the bigger picture", as Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, sets out the task in a comment in the Evening Standard recently, and proposes to move them "100 yards upriver" to a spot under the Hungerford Bridge, a dim area at the edge of the complex. The Southbank Centre, she points out, organizes workshops for 1,000 people of all ages each week. The 40,000 people who had been signing the petition to keep the Undercroft alive (it's well over 50,000 now), did so only online, and those 20,000 people who joined the campaign in front of the Undercroft over the past month are not to be taken very seriously either, since it is frequented by so many tourists, she suggests on BBC Radio London last weekend.
Perhaps the Southbank Centre's curious logic is most poignantly expressed in a recent leaflet that was circulated at the Undercroft: "This is a change for our skateboarders, but it's not too much to ask if everyone else will benefit", it concludes. Our skateboarders? Everyone else?
As someone who has campaigned at the Undercroft for over a month now, I am stunned as to whom these words actually refer to. The leaflet was handed over to me by an elderly couple last Sunday. They were appalled by what they read there, as appalled as they were by Jude Kelly's words heard on the radio earlier that morning. The broad support this space is receiving has impressed me.
"I hate skateboarders, I have never signed for anything, but I will sign this one" a wealthy looking middle-aged man once said. I won't forget the 89-year-old either who walked all the way over in the rain to our table to sign. Or the lady who broke into tears when expressing her fear that the place she has been coming to since the 1970s, and that her youngest son is using to skate now, could go. There are tourists who love to see the activities there too, but it's locals who tend to be most passionate about it.
Many just don't want to see another space they have come to value go. And then there are all the skateboarders, BMX riders, graffiti & hip-hop artists, dancers, musicians, photographers, filmmakers. They come regularly, they come some times, they come from nearby, they come from all over the country, from Europe, and indeed from all over the world. What brings all these people together, is this space at the centre of the Southbank. It is vibrant, it is diverse, it is unique. It has history.
It's time that the Centre, which claims to have arts and community at its heart, starts to appreciate the vital role the Undercroft plays in the area. No organisation, arts funding or commercial units required. Free art for everyone. It shouldn't be too hard for everyone else to see this too.